Organizations create centers of excellence to distill and disseminate best practices on any number of topics. Using this approach to support collaborative innovation has certain drawbacks, however. In this article Doug Collins identifies the drawbacks and explores an alternative way to support collaborative innovation which respects the tenets of the practice by adopting principles from the Montessori Method.

Relax Ay Voo

People who lead their organizations’ collaborative innovation programs cannot relax until they have brought the first one or two collaborative innovation campaigns to a successful close. No wonder. For many, this engagement represents their first exploration of the potential that the practice of collaborative innovation can offer their organization and them. They appreciate that implementing the practice transforms the ways in which the community works together and behaves towards one another. Change brings tension borne of uncertainty.

At some point, the leader sees the community introducing compelling, novel approaches to seemingly intractable problems. They see their colleagues realizing their potential for leadership in forming and pursuing ideas to resolution with the campaign sponsors. Nobody has lost a limb or their career. Life is good—or, more to the point, life is more open, dynamic, and engaging than it had been: characteristic prerequisites for making headway in the knowledge economy.

In turn, the number of practitioners, including sponsors, community managers, coaches, moderators, and facilitators—grows with the growing interest in, and demand for, collaborative innovation. At some further point, the people who lead the collaborative innovation program ask if we should support the community in more formal, structured ways. If so, what might that structure look like? What goals do we set for the program, beyond satisfying requests to support the next campaign?

In this article, I explore an approach to supporting a collaborative innovation program in a way that respects the tenets of the practice by applying the principles of the Montessori Method, albeit in the adult realm.

Best Practices

I sometimes hear the concept of founding a “center of excellence” to more formally support collaborative innovation. The center may include a curriculum and a schedule of events: Collaborative Innovation 101, for example. Class, please take your seats.

Labeling the activity in this way introduces a conceptual drawback, however. Doing so works against the spirit of openness and enquiry that defines effective collaborative innovation. Someone appears to have achieved excellence: let us come in, sit down, and shut up so that we can hear what they have to say. Excellence demands appreciation and disdains engagement.

Whereas we can convene to share our experience, each member’s aspirations and circumstances define their vision of what constitutes excellence. How often have we been presented with a “best” practice, only to discover that it achieved that lofty status by virtue of the fact that someone took the time to document it? We adopt and neglect elements of a practice, making it “best,” relative to our needs.

To this end, to the extent that the “center of excellence” model equates to the mainstream form of education (i.e., sit down, open the book, and listen), then the “innovation collaboratory” model equates to the Montessori Method. Specifically, the latter approach—translated to the practice of collaborative innovation—respects that…

  • As the people who lead and participate in collaborative innovation, practitioners learn at their own pace and follow their own interests.
  • Understanding comes through the collaborative innovation practitioner’s own experiences via the materials—their tools of the trade.
  • The collaborative innovation practitioner has uninterrupted work cycles in which to pursue their exploration of the practice
  • In line with hosting “multi-age” classrooms, collaborative innovation practitioners pursuing the various forms and focuses of the practice work together: open and enquiry led; internal and external.

Applying the Montessori Method

What might applying the Montessori Method look like within the organization? Consider the following scenario.

Imagine that people within the organization not only want help running their campaigns, but also guidance in pursing the practice of collaborative innovation. They express a powerful form of leadership through their enquiry and in embracing authentic transformation.

You lead the collaborative innovation program on behalf of the organization. You secure a place—a physical space—where people who want to pursue their practice can work without interruption. You reserve a time—let’s say from 8 to 11 a.m. every Friday—when the people can come to work on their plans. You provide white boards and templates that depict the day in the life of a collaborative innovation campaign to each practitioner by way of providing them materials. Their templates vary by the form and focus of collaborative innovation they choose to explore. You circulate amongst the practitioners, engaging with them and exploring their campaigns with them.

The materials share common attributes—they cover certain themes—such as question formation, community mapping, scheduling, resolution, and modes of engagement (e.g., in person and virtual).

Perhaps, towards the end of each collaboratory session, practitioners share their experiences with one another.

What are you not doing in the above scenario? You are not giving PowerPoint presentations. You are not preparing three-hour lectures, which should come as a relief to everyone involved. You are not gearing up to convince a fellow practitioner that your practice is the best practice.

Relax. Devote your energies to engaging with your fellow practitioners in the same way that they aspire to engage their community. Accept that applying traditional methods of learning to prepare people to engage their community in open, enquiry-led ways makes no sense whatsoever. Training in most organizations has largely become an exercise in achieving pro forma compliance. Feel free to say “no” on behalf of your practitioners. Instead, let your practice inform your behavior in the same way that Maria Montessori allowed her observations on the way children learn inform her pedagogy and the method she ultimately discovered. Here again, I do not imply that in mining the value that the Montessori Method offers you in turn treat your fellow practitioners as children.

Get Thee to a Montessori

By way of next steps, arrange to spend time with a teacher or two proficient in the Montessori Method. Perhaps this person teaches at your neighborhood school. You can also locate people though the following web resource. Call them. Offer to buy them breakfast, where you can gain their perspective on applying the method to your program for collaborative innovation. Likewise, order a copy of Paula Lillard’s Montessori in the Classroom. She offers perspective on what occurs in a modern-day Montessori classroom.

Some may question bringing a teacher versed in the Montessori Method into the conversation. My response: you guide your clients to seek diversity as they build their community. Take your own counsel by allowing a diversity of views to inform the development of the program by which you support the practice of collaborative innovation within your organization.

Practice What You Preach

In closing, I encourage you as the leader of your organization’s collaborative innovation program to consider the following as you evolve your practice:

  • What opportunities do you have to model the program that reflects and respects the spirit of open enquiry that you encourage your fellow practitioners to embrace as they develop their campaigns? Do you practice what you preach as you support them?
  • What opportunities do you have to gain a diversity of perspectives in developing your program—in this instance, soliciting the views of a skilled Montessori teacher to inform your program?

As you work with the people in your organization who choose to pursue collaborative innovation, you have the opportunity to help them realize their potential for leadership in embracing the practice. Embrace the same opportunities for yourself as you work through what constitutes an effective mode of engagement by way of supporting them in their endeavors

By Doug Collins

About the author

Doug Collins serves as an innovation architect. He helps organizations big and small navigate the fuzzy front end of innovation by developing approaches, creating forums, and structuring engagements whereby people can convene to explore the critical questions facing the enterprise. He helps people assign economic value to the process and ideas that result.As an author, Doug explores ways in which people can apply the practice of collaborative innovation in his series Innovation Architecture: A New Blueprint for Engaging People through Collaborative Innovation. His bi-weekly column appears in the publication Innovation Management. Doug serves on the board of advisors for Frost & Sullivan’s Global community of Growth, Innovation and Leadership (GIL).

Today, Doug works at social innovation leader Spigit, where he consults with clients such as BECU, Estee Lauder Companies, Johnson & Johnson, Ryder System and the U.S. Postal Service. Doug helps them to realize their potential for leadership by applying the practice of collaborative innovation.